But in more than two seasons since, Brown felt like he was competing on rollers. He was pedaling with the same conviction, but career-wise, he was going nowhere fast.
Plenty of riders have long, successful careers as domestiques, with occasional individual chances in the spotlight. It wasn’t a route Brown wanted to follow any longer. Which is why he’s now beginning his first season with his third pro team, Rally-UHC.
Brown, 28, the all-rounder with a knack for climbing and time trialing, rode for EF Education First and its previous iterations for six years. But he decided, with encouragement, that change was important.
“I loved the team, but I felt like I was stuck,” said Brown during the team’s recent training camp in Oxnard, California. “I was doing the same thing year over and year over. I look at this as an opportunity to race my bike again. I was talking to Jonas (Carney) and he said, ‘Not only do we want you to bring your experience. But we want you to go for races. Race for yourself. Go try and win races.’ I haven’t done that in years.”
Brown excelled early in his career, winning the under-23 time trial national title nearly a decade ago. The 2103 Tour de Beauce was his last overall title. And while individual results are appealing, Brown’s new job also includes a new role—road captain. It’s not an entirely new position. Brown had some responsibilities with his previous team, but it was sometimes awkward. He was providing leadership to riders with more experience.
With his new captaincy, Brown follows Rally’s penchant for assigning smart veterans to that role. Danny Pate, who rode for Rally for the final three years of his career, retired at age 38 in 2018 after 19 pro seasons. Svein Tuft rode the last of his 15 pro seasons in 2019, and retired at age 41.
“The way that we look at it, some leaders are just different than others,” said Jonas Carney, who has been part Rally’s management since its debut in 2008. “Danny Pate and Svein Tuft were great road captains, but they were two different people in the way they lead. Danny was an on-the-bike tactician. He was excellent and for that period of the team, we really needed someone like that. Svein was different in that off the bike, he was very, very engaging in every aspect of the team.
“The thing for us is to just find the right person. No one is ever going to be Danny Pate, and no one is ever going to be Svein Tuft. This year is about finding the person who can bring their experience and impart with their knowledge.”
With Brown, the team acquires a rider with a quiet persona, and a lead-by-example style displayed by former team member, and now-retired Evan Huffman. Brown has something to say, and plans to do so with a combination of a delicate balance between a commanding and stern presence.
“Off the bike, if riders have issues, it’s kind-of my job to get through those issues, and go to the directors and ask, ‘Can we change this? Or, can we change that?’ ” said Brown. “But at the same time, I don’t [want] to be that guy who comes to the team and thinks they’re better than everyone. I think there’s a balance I will learn. I don’t want to come on the team and say, ‘hey, I’m the frickin’ road captain. Listen to me. That’s not what I want.”
The team, with Brown as its leader, is racing this week in its season-opener, the Tour of San Juan in Argentina.
“For sure, it’s a different role,” Brown continued. “I tried to step into a little bit with EF, while observing Mitch [Docker] and Johnny Clarke. Those guys are amazing road captains. Now, I’m coming to this team and they’re saying, ‘you’re the old guy.’ But I think it is going to be fun. I can’t wait to bring the experience I’ve learned over the years.”
“I felt like with EF, when I was trying to be a road captain, other guys had more experience. I was kind of tip-toeing around. But I feel on this team, there’s a lot of respect. They respect me and I respect them. When you’re in the race, the directors can’t always see what’s going on. So, it’s more on me to make the calls. The directors have given me that responsibility.”
Brown joins Rally after six straight years of completing grand tours. After his surprising result at the 2017 Tour de France, he’s finished the Tour of Italy the past two seasons, like he’s did in other grand tours — riding for others.
“My coach told me, ‘If your only goal is to race in grand tours, then stay on the WorldTour,’ ” said Brown. ‘But if you want to go to a team and race for results and be more of a leader and road captain, then you need to go to Rally.”
The Tour of California was a goal for Brown, but its official status as on “hiatus” means he’ll join the rest of the peloton needing to seek other opportunities.
The departure of the country’s largest cycling race also abruptly, and oddly, displaced Rally and its Minnesota-based title sponsor. The men’s and women’s teams will only compete sporadically in North America. Brown signed with Rally before the Tour of California’s demise, and hadn’t competed in the event since 2014.
Following this week’s race, Rally is scheduled to compete in Australia, Saudi Arabia, Colombia and France all with the next month.
“As my coach said, it’s a perfect opportunity with Rally,” said Brown. “He said, “Go, as they grow, you’ll grow with them.’ “